Welcome to 10 Questions, a series that explores LA through the eyes of its coolest, most stylish citizens.
As many popular put-downs about Los Angeles often declare, many of the City of Angels' woes can be blamed on its desert terrain. Au contraire: As brand-new book This Is (Not) LA explains, "according to the Köppen system, LA's climate is Mediterranean. Not arid, not desert. Mediterranean." (Touché, haters.)
Another common misconception? That all Angelenos are green juice-drinking, automobile-obsessed, lip-fillered denizens who live in a city devoid of a center, soul, and culture. That's partly what inspired self-professed former SoCal naysayer and Knock Knock founder Jen Bilik set the record straight on the city that NorCal loves to hate. The Bay Area-bred author, editor, and entrepreneur's 168-page tome ($18) was released on her clever stationery brand's website earlier this month, and it's now shoppable online and in stores.
Calling out 18 myths and the facts behind the oft-believed fiction of LA (the original Spanish name is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, by the way) Bilik and co-author Kate Sullivan cover topics ranging from our seemingly season-less weather to the not-so-glamorous streets of Hollywood and beyond. On top of scoring Mayor Eric Garcetti's official seal of approval, the book's foreword was written by the late and great Jonathan Gold.
Bilik reveals that she used to be among the Northern Californians who saw "Los Angelenos as materialistic, selfish, and dumb." Her change of heart came not in LA, but in New York of all places. As an editor living in the Big Apple, she worked with the famed Chateau Marmont hotel on a book about its Hollywood history; she eventually made the West Coast switch in the late '90s and "soon discovered that Los Angeles was an amazing place. It had culture. It had nature. It had smarts," she writes. "It felt vibrant and dynamic…I congratulated myself for cracking a well-kept secret until I realized that…I just hadn't been in on it."
Intrigued? Knock Knock's hosting a book launch party with some of LA's most inspiring movers and shakers at the Natural History Museum this Thursday, September 20. Happening from 5 to 9pm, the bash will include food trucks, a reading of Gold's foreword by KCRW's Good Food host Evan Kleiman, a discussion on how LA has transformed into the cultural capital it is today (among other topics), and a Q&A sesh. Panelists include Mexican-American author and radio producer Patty Rodriguez, journalist Lynell George, Curbed Urbanism editor and journalist Alissa Walker, and award-winning magazine journalist Ed Leibowitz.
We recently caught up with Bilik via email to learn more about how the concept for This Is (Not) LA was born, what her "driving in LA" playlist sounds like, her favorite underrated LA tourist spot, and more. Read on below for our chat with Bilik, and RSVP for this Thursday's free event here.
View this post on Instagram
What was the conversation between you and Kate that inspired the concept for the book?
My publishing company, Knock Knock, has been lucky enough to have Kate as a writer and editor on our team since 2011. The idea for the book was mine, inspired in part by a series of blog posts journalist Alissa Walker had done in which she scored all the clichéd slams against Los Angeles by such otherwise reputable publications as the New York Times. At that point, it clicked for me that someone needed to mount a substantive defense, and I had a particular vision for the book's structure and tone.
From there, I and the Knock Knock team began working on the concept, and then Kate took it on heart and soul as her assignment, along with plenty of help from the rest of the editorial team. She's a native, and I'm a twenty-year transplant, and the two of us have complementary strengths, so it was a good match.
We're sure you miss Jonathan Gold as much as the rest of LA. How did you two connect and did he give you any memorable tips or advice on living in LA?
Jonathan was a mentor to Kate when they both worked at the LA Weekly, and she shared with him the concept of the book and asked him to write the foreword. I was looking forward tremendously to meeting him when the book was finished, and like the rest of LA, am gutted to have lost him for the city and for the world.
While I can't think of a specific piece of advice I gleaned from his writing (though I have referenced it frequently over the years), the biggest one would probably be that street food in LA rocks and is nothing to be afraid of.
In your experience, what's LA's most underrated traffic "hack"?
When I first moved here, in 1998, I lived in Beachwood Canyon for the first year and a half (before moving pretty permanently to Venice), and Fountain was still a fantastic wormhole. But with the advent of Waze and Google Maps, no traffic hack is secret.
Recently our office moved from Venice to the Howard Hughes Center, and when I go Downtown, I'm able to drive entirely on streets rather than the freeway in just about the same amount of time — through Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, Leimert Park, Exposition Park, beautiful old neighborhoods on the southern side of LA, which I hadn't previously explored. Not only am I moving the entire time, rather than stuck on five lanes of blanched pavement, but I get to see a whole new side (for me) of our city.
What does your "driving in LA" playlist sound like?
Soon after I moved to LA, KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic — one of the best music radio shows in the world and, I would argue, a great unifying force in Los Angeles and a well-recognized boon to a music industry decimated by a blockbuster rather than independent mentality — was playing a lot of Beth Orton's new album, Central Reservation, and I fell in love with it. I was spending a lot of time in the car for a period, and I listened to that album over and over and over again. It will always remind me of Los Angeles.
I have a favorite song by Lyle Lovett, "L.A. County," to which I've been singing at the top of my longs for many years, and even though I knew all the words long ago, I only recently realized that it's a story not of a romance but of a murder.
Cliched or not, what's been the most "LA" experience you've ever had?
Insane, debauched, liquor-soaked mansion parties in the Hollywood Hills.
What's LA's most underrated tourist spot?
Yamashiro. It's a great example of LA's tradition of architectural follies. Two brothers around the turn of the twentieth century wanted to recreate a Japanese mountain temple in the Hollywood Hills, down to using wood pegs rather than nails. The brothers and their two wives lived there until the last of the four died. It's been a restaurant and bar for a while now. While I can't speak to the food, it's got a fantastic view of the city, especially at sunset and after dark, and it's right up the road from the Magic Castle, another Los Angeles folly.
If you could travel back in time to any period in LA, when would it be and why?
As a dedicated Venetian, I would have loved to experience the original canals that developer Abbot Kinney built in the early twentieth century, before they fell into disrepair and, in 1929, in part sacrificed to the automobile, were filled in by the city of Los Angeles (which the city of Venice had just joined). For many years I lived on a street, Altair Place, that had been one of the original canals, and I'm totally enamored of Venice's history.
Your favorite little-known source for shopping for (fill in the blank) is:
I'm actually kind of a terrible insider when it comes to little-known sources. My favorite stores in Los Angeles, retailers of world-class sourcing and originality, are OK The Store in West Hollywood, and Tortoise, formerly of Venice, now of Mar Vista.
We also hear you're quite the crafter. What are a few of your favorite LA stores for finding arts & crafts supplies?
Actually, before I read this question, I had typed this: "I do love going to specialty stores, whether Surfas for restaurant supply or International Silk & Woolens or F&S for fabrics." I haven't been doing as much crafting lately because I've been busy, so some of the stores I loved have closed and I miss them, like Ritual Adornments, a bead store on Main Street in Santa Monica. One thing that completely re-inspired me was French General Store, in the Frogtown neighborhood (which means I'll never get there because it's so far east), which, in addition to being a world-class amazing store in itself, conducts "Downtown digs," where the owner, Kaari Meng, takes people around to her favorite sources — which are amazing.
You've got 24 hours to show a first-time LA visitor around town — what does your itinerary look like?
I have a tour that I have basically gotten down pat. We go from Venice north through Santa Monica, onto the Pacific Coast Highway. We turn east at Sunset and visit the Self-Realization Fellowship's Lake Shrine, a beautiful sanctuary for meditation created by Paramahansa Yogananda, who was primarily responsible for bringing meditation to the west, and another example of the Los Angeles folly — a creation that would only have been possible on the blank slate, both architecturally and spiritually, that was early Los Angeles. We then take Sunset east, through Pacific Palisades and Brentwood and Beverly Hills, to the Sunset Strip, with its great rock-and-roll legacy.
We have drinks either at the Standard Hotel, overlooking Los Angeles, or the Chateau Marmont, another piece of LA history. We then take Laurel Canyon north up to Mulholland Drive, and somehow make our way back down to end up in Silver Lake, Downtown, Koreatown, or Hollywood.
If LA were a dish, what would it be?
Well, obviously, the taco.